Over the past year and a half, Bob Duggan has carved out a niche for himself as one of the premier art bloggers on the Web. His daily meditations on the works and artists he loves best range over the whole scope of art history, both Western and Eastern, yet his site is as consistently unpretentious and good-humored as its title, “Art Blog By Bob.” A passionate amateur with a literary bent, he has brought the spirit of John Ruskin to a blogosphere that badly needs it. This week he graciously took time out from pondering the Old Masters to answer a few questions about (surprise!) art. And books, too.
AMoS: How and why did you get into blogging? What was your goal in creating Art Blog by Bob?
BD: Since the 2000 election, I’ve been hooked on political blogs, especially Eschaton and Daily Kos. Seeing the potential for such enlightened and lively discourse on a topic by “amateurs” and professionals interested in talking to laypersons rather than just other professionals, I began looking for blogs covering my other interests, including art history. To my dismay, I really didn’t find that much out there. I discovered lots of contemporary art bloggers, but nothing really touching on the “classic” art that you’d see in museums and in big-name museum exhibitions. One free Blogger account later, I started blogging in March 2007 with no aspiration other than writing for my own enjoyment and maybe picking up some like-minded readers on the way. (A psychoanalyst might argue that Art Blog by Bob is how I’m dealing with my impending midlife crisis; at the very least, it’s cheaper than a Corvette.) I’d like to think I’ve helped fill a neglected niche in my own way. My academic training is in English literature and literary criticism, so reviewing art books and museum catalogues became the next step in the evolution of Art Blog by Bob. Book reviewing in America is a dying art, but thanks to the forward-mindedness and kindness of many museums and publishers such as Abbeville Press, I’ve been able to review books that had little or no chance of ever getting reviewed in the mainstream media.
AMoS: Your mention of literature brings up a point that we’re always interested in at Abbeville (not least because several of us were English majors too): the relationship between writing and art. How do you feel your background in literary study affects your perception of, and taste in, art? What do you think explains the close connection between the two disciplines?
BD: Great question, and one I ask myself often in my more metaphysical moments. I think that my literary background certainly colors the kind of art that grabs me. A highly literary group such as the Pre-Raphaelites, evoking Shakespeare, Keats, Tennyson, and other greats, certainly finds a special place in my mind and heart. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate more modern and abstract kinds of art, but that connection for me from a literary perspective is usually more intellectual. Theories of literary deconstruction fit in nicely with Cubism, Vorticism, etc. For me, Abstract Expressionism screams all kinds of Freudian literary interpretation à la Harold Bloom and his Anxiety of Influence. I’m so steeped in literature that I sometimes have to force myself to turn that off (if such a thing is possible) and look at something in a purely sensory way. I once sat in front of a Rothko for a half hour doing just that.
I think the two disciplines merge wonderfully because the interpretive techniques work so well for both. You can’t say the same for literature and music because the media are just too different, but marks on paper intending to convey meaning—whether they’re letters or brushstrokes—simply enjoy a common ability to withstand the best and the worst such analysis has to offer. Also, you can go all the way back to Vasari and the beginnings of art history and interpret that text as a narrative with built-in intentionality and biases and simultaneously interpret how it looks at art, too. I think that the finest writing on art, going back to people like John Ruskin and Walter Pater in the nineteenth century all the way up to Simon Schama, T.J. Clark, Craig Clunas, Robert Hughes, and others today, approaches the level of poetry in prose more frequently than any other type of nonfiction, which creates an endless loop of interpretation being interpreted. The wheel just keeps going round and round. I’d hate to be there if it ever stopped.
AMoS: It’s interesting that you mention critics like Ruskin and Pater (and Bloom in literature), whose criticism is often a species of personal essay. (Bloom has even been accused of writing concealed autobiography when he’s supposed to be discussing Shakespeare.) Do you follow this model when you blog? Do you find yourself writing about your own life and concerns when you intended to discuss El Greco or Millet?
BD: I subscribe to the theory that all writing and all forms of expression are autobiographical in some way and simply differ in the degree that you conceal it either consciously or subconsciously. One of the things that kept me out of the professional literary criticism track was the falseness of trying to drain all the blood and personality out of analyzing art. Without that human element, I just don’t know why anyone would bother. I pretty freely insert my own life and concerns into my writing on art. Without that connection, I wouldn’t feel as driven as I am to engage these artists. El Greco’s been dead for a good, long time, but when I’m looking at his paintings and thinking and writing about him, he’s right next to me spiritually. There’s a danger, of course, of making it all about me, as so many bloggers who wallow in solipsism do. But I think that’s a brand of sloppy thinking and writing that’s more a part of our culture and educational system than a symptom of blogging itself.
AMoS: Speaking of the artists you’ve engaged with, which are your favorites? Of those that you didn’t know or like before you started writing Art Blog By Bob, which have you come to admire the most?
BD: I would have to say that the single artist I connect with most closely is Thomas Eakins. Because of all of Eakins’ links to Philadelphia, my birthplace and hometown, his works resonate with me as part of the environment itself. Plus, Eakins lived a tough life, some of which he brought onto himself with his brusqueness, and suffered neglect from the art world at large until well after his death, which, at least for me, makes him an emblem of the blue-collar, underdog mentality that I’ve always associated with Philadelphia. After that, my tastes are pretty eclectic. Michelangelo certainly holds a special place. When my wife Annie and I honeymooned in Italy, I was floored by the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. (Annie was more taken with the David.) J.M.W. Turner, Picasso, Dali, Matisse, John Singer Sargent, Caspar David Friedrich, Rembrandt…I could go on all day with my favorites.
In regards to people I’ve come to appreciate more since writing Art Blog By Bob, a few stand out. After reading the Tate’s exhibition catalogue for their John Everett Millais show last year, I see him more as a distinct artist separate from the Pre-Raphaelites. John Sloan and Robert Henri have risen in my estimation thanks to new studies on the role of The Ashcan School in American art and culture. It seems like I keep finding new favorite artists. For example, right now I’m reading the exhibition catalogue for George De Forrest Brush: The Indian Paintings currently running at the NGA. The essays in that book really connect Brush to his period and the whole arc of art history, from alluding to contemporaries such as Winslow Homer to harking back to classics such as Rubens. Brush studied in Paris with Gerome, who also taught Eakins and many other American artists, so I can’t help but compare Brush with Eakins. Each new artist I discover fits into the larger picture of art history for me like a new piece to the puzzle. I got into blogging as a learning experience, so discovering a new artist or rediscovering someone I thought I knew well is a huge thrill. Next year is the centennial of Francis Bacon’s birth, so a whole slew of Bacon books are on the horizon that will put his work, which I find grotesquely fascinating, into a better perspective.
AMoS: Your blog seems to be defined by those kinds of discoveries and rediscoveries. What are your future plans for Art Blog By Bob? Do you want to keep doing what you’re doing, or do you anticipate taking the site in any new directions?
BD: I really don’t have any long-term goals for Art Blog By Bob other than continuing to enjoy the ride and letting the rest take care of itself. Whether it’s five or five hundred people reading my work each day, I’ll keep putting it out there. When I map out who I’ll be writing on each week, I always try to acknowledge the big names, but I also want to acknowledge lesser-known names who are interesting as individual artists as well as for their role in their period or school. If I could change anything about my current operations, I would include more women and more artists from outside the Western tradition. Reviewing the exhibition catalogue for the Nandalal Bose show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this year was pure joy for me. Bose participated in and designed the “look” for the most momentous events of modern Indian history—the creation of modern India itself—often right alongside Gandhi. I had never heard of Nandalal before, but now he’s part of my permanent consciousness. Finding that one gem makes me wonder how many other incredible artists from other cultures are out there waiting to be found. Michelangelo et al. will always find a place in my heart, but there’s enough room for an entire world of art in there. I think we’re all capable of containing multitudes if we just stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zones. As Robert Browning wrote in his poem “Andrea del Sarto,” his musing on one of the semi-forgotten names of the Italian Renaissance, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp—or what’s a heaven for?” No matter who did it or where it is from, I’ll keep reaching for the best in art, one of the biggest slices of heaven we may have here on earth.
Many thanks to Bob for lending his time, and for tossing out Whitman and Browning references so we don’t have to. As always, we encourage our readers to make Art Blog By Bob a part of their daily Web diet—and never more so than this month, when you might see another Abbeville contest hosted there…